A Quick Guide To Budapest – The Capital Of Hungary

Budapest had long been on my travel wishlist and I was glad to be able to visit this Eastern European gem when it was still relatively uninundated by tourists. This city is perfect for budget travellers as the Hungarian Forint makes all things affordable. Cost-effectiveness aside, the place has plenty of history, culture and natural sights that deserve at least one visit in a lifetime. Here’s my easy guide to exploring Budapest on foot:-

Gellért Hill And The Citadella

Gellért Hill in Buda offers panoramic views of the city

Gellért Hill in Buda offers panoramic views of the city

Wake up early and begin your exploration from Gellért Hill in Buda. This hill which was once full of vineyards is named after a bishop who was forced into a wine barrel and rolled down from the top. There are several hiking trails along Gellért Hill that lead to various points of interest which also provide sweeping views of Budapest from great vantage points. The Citadella – a fortress complex, Sziklatemplom – a chapel-cum-museum inside the natural cave structure of this hill and St. Gellért Monument are not to be missed!

Tram It Out If You’re Not Into Walking

Trams connect most of Buda and Pest and even cross over the Danube!

Trams connect most of Buda and Pest and even cross over the Danube!

Budapest is little enough to be covered entirely on foot (especially if you are a fast walker like me) and yet large enough to warrant public transport and cars. Whatever your level of physical fitness, the city requires a lot of walking. So, if you think you’re going to tire out, hop inside one of their cool trams that run all across the cobblestone streets in Buda and Pest, and also across the Danube River that separates the two parts of Budapest! The locals often joke that the Pesti are not as sophisticated as the residents of Buda, but to discover if there’s any truth in that generalization, you’ll have to explore both the parts of the city. 😉

Buda Castle And The Underground Cave Network

Hiking up the Buda Castle, I wondered what lives the kings of the 13th century must have led.

Hiking up the Buda Castle, I wondered what lives the kings of the 13th century must have led.

One of the most iconic structures of Hungary is the Buda Castle. This gorgeous baroque palace built on Castle Hill is among Budapest’s World Heritage Sites, along with the embankments by the Danube. The palace complex also houses the Budapest History Museum. The funicular that leads to the palace usually has a long queue and it helps to do the trek instead. There’s also a lift inside that shortens your walk by a couple of floors. The Castle Hill has many more historical attractions which have been carefully maintained for centuries. Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church are important for their intricate architecture and viewing galleries. However, the site that most moved me was the Hospital In The Rock Nuclear Bunker Museum (Sziklakórház Atombunker Múzeum). This underground museum is a complex of interconnected caves right below the Buda Castle. I took one of their hour-long tours to learn that the fortified caves were used as shelter against air raids during World War II and then as an emergency hospital to treat casualties during the 1956 Revolution. A couple of years later, the place served as a nuclear bunker as people feared chemical attacks during the Cold War.

Across The Danube

Cross over to Pest from the old Buda and watch the ships go by.

Cross over to Pest from the old Buda and watch the ships go by.

Once you have had a taste of Buda, cross the Danube to Pest. There are many bridges that run over this river, the prominent ones being Chain Bridge, Liberty Bridge and Elizabeth Bridge. The river is a nice way to tour the entire stretch of Budapest’s embankments. There are countless cruises that have live commentary, food and entertainment onboard. An evening cruise lets you marvel over the glittering banks as you pass by famous buildings and go under the bridges.

St. Stephen’s Basilica – Budapest’s Largest Cathedral

St. Stephen's Basilica is the tallest building in Pest.

St. Stephen’s Basilica is the tallest building in Pest.

The Budapest Cathedral or St. Stephen’s Basilica is just as tall as the Hungarian Parliament Building at 96m. This is to signify that the country considers the spiritualism of the church and the laws of the world to be of equal importance. Even if you are irreligious, visit this church which took over 50 years to be built. The spiral stairways inside lead up to an observation deck that offers views that are spellbinding!

See The Rooftops Of Budapest

I watch the Old Town from the viewing gallery of St. Stephen's Basilica.

I watch the Old Town from the viewing gallery of St. Stephen’s Basilica.

It is from the observation deck of the Budapest Cathedral that I saw my life’s very first double rainbow! 🙂 The rains had just stopped when I had finished climbing the 364 steps to the dome to watch two beautiful rainbows in the clearing sky. From up there, you can see a lot of Pest and Buda – the magnificent royal palace, the tall spire of Matthias Church, all the way to the Tatra Mountains in the distance.

By The Pesti Bank Of The Danube

Attila Jozsef's statue sits by the Hungarian Parliament building, this Hungarian poet's lines from one of his poems raised on the steps below.

Attila Jozsef’s statue sits by the Hungarian Parliament building, this Hungarian poet’s lines from one of his poems raised on the steps below.

An evening walk along the riverside of Pest will take you to the third largest parliament building in the world. Guided tours are available inside the Hungarian Parliament Building. Some distance ahead, there is an art installation called ‘Shoes By The Danube’ which displays iron statues of 60 pairs of shoes permanently installed to remember the victims of the holocaust who were shot there.

The Great Market Hall

Central Market Hall - Budapest's grand marketplace for shopaholics and foodies

Central Market Hall – Budapest’s grand marketplace for shopaholics and foodies

The largest indoor marketplace in the city – Central Market Hall has numerous stalls that offer fruits, vegetables, chocolates and countless Hungarian specialities. I loved munching on a strudel from one of the stalls here which comes with assorted and unusual stuffings such as pumpkin-poppy-seed. The second floor has eateries and shops which sell clothing and interesting artefacts among many other things.

Jewish Quarter And The House Of Terror

House Of Terror - Budapest's war museum

House Of Terror – Budapest’s war museum

Hungary has a lot of Jewish history, most of it heart-wrenching. The largest synagogue in Europe, Dohány Street Synagogue, has heavy security and employs strict screening of all its visitors. The complex also has a museum, a cemetery and a Holocaust memorial – a weeping willow tree which has names of the Hungarian Jewish victims inscribed on its leaves. Terror tourism is emotionally painful for spectators, but an important way to sensitize the public on the horrors of wars, racism and anti-semitism. You cannot do without a tour of Terror Háza Múzeum (House of Terror Museum) where thousands of people were tortured and imprisoned by the Nazis. The voice recording of a former prisoner describing how they were abused chilled me to the bone as it played in the lift.

Along Andrássy Avenue

Hősök tere (Heroes' Square) recognizes the founders of Hungary

Hősök tere (Heroes’ Square) recognizes the founders of Hungary

Andrássy Avenue, a World Heritage Site, is an important and long stretch of road in Pest that leads to the Heroes’ Square – the largest square in Budapest. Along the street, you come across a number of shops, squares, museums including Terror Háza, the State Opera House and many commercial and residential buildings and villas.

In Case You Have More Time

I smile after a couple of hikes in Buda

I smile after a couple of hikes in Buda

There is so much to see and do in Budapest that you need a long holiday to fully enjoy all of its attractions at leisure. I was able to spend a day in Margaret Island which sits in the middle of the Danube. This city also has a handful of thermal baths which promise to relax your nerves and cleanse your body with their medicinal properties.

Have I convinced you to visit Budapest yet?

Let me know by commenting below! 🙂

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Preserving Your Travel Memories on Travelibro

I was looking back at all of the trips I did last year, and I realized I couldn’t even recall a few! On an average, I had been on at least one trip a month in 2015. If I struggled to remember 12 destinations, I would certainly find it it a task to remember 12 times the-number-of-years-I-live (assumiing I keep up my pace of travel for the rest of my life 😉 ).

As I flipped through my Poland album (see What Warsaw Whispers – A Photoessay), I was suddenly gripped by the fear that I would someday forget all about those wonderful moments I spent there.

View from the Royal Castle in Warsaw

View from the Royal Castle in Warsaw

I knew there were myriad ways I could store all the pictures, but I wanted to keep a trace of the path I took at every place I went. That is when I stumbled upon Travelibro. This site showed me (and quite literally with its video and user-friendly prompts) how I could preserve some practical bits of my trips so I would never have to worry about forgetting anything.

My travel map on Travelibro

My travel map on Travelibro

After I created my account on the website, I could colour the world map with all the places I have already seen (and also pick those on my bucket list). I quickly filled up the list of countries as I went through one photo album after another, remembering my moments in every place I have been.

I stopped at Colombo (see First Impressions of Sri Lanka), and longed to plan another trip there.

Sri Lanka is almost synonymous with palm trees

Sri Lanka is almost synonymous with palm trees

Travelibro created a neat little travel tracker for me with the flags of the countries on a timeline. I have only been to 10 countries so far, and that makes me a “globe trotter” already on the site. 🙂

Tracking countries on a timeline

Tracking countries on a timeline

After I marked my countries, I got to the task of documenting my trips. I started with Latvia (see The Romance of Riga). The process of creating an itinerary is very simple on Travelibro – you pick your country, the cities you have been to, the dates of travel, the type of trip (adventure, budget, romantic, etc.), the places you stayed at, the restaurants you ate at and the activities you recommend. Most of these have preloaded options to guide you. You can then start telling your stories (by each city/town/village) and create a day-by-day plan. You obviously get to upload pictures with captions and finally select the cost of your trip before you publish it for the world to see.

The silhouette of Riga as I last saw it

The silhouette of Riga as I last saw it

I currently have most of my recent foreign itineraries up on Travelibro. Do visit my profile – http://travelibro.com/users/oindrila-de. It will be fun swapping itineraries and taking travel tips from the growing community of travellers and travel bloggers on the site!

For those who prefer flash-packing, do check out their On-The-Go app feature. It lets you create shared timelines with your travel buddies on the fly with simple things such as check-ins, photo uploads and status updates.

My easy-to-use country-itineraries

My easy-to-use country-itineraries

I understand that many travellers prefer to have their hands held through the tedious process of preparing for a trip (think booking flights, hotels, planning the itinerary etc.). I have also gone through moments when I wished I could outsource the boring stuff to an agent, especially when I was planning a trip to Lithuania (see Running in Lithuania – My First Half Marathon Abroad) – applying for a visa was a real hassle! If you like to relax while someone else plans your trip for you, Travelibro has something that will make you smile! You can choose from a collection of travel agents to bear your headache for you.

While I was running through Vingis Park - the largest park in Vilnius

While I was running through Vingis Park – the largest park in Vilnius

Of course, there are many of us who truly enjoy the task of planning every bit of our trip. (And I belong to this group.) Travelibro lets you search for itineraries (created by real people who have actually undertaken those trips) by destination and type (luxury, business, roadtrip, etc.), so you can look for some inspiration. Do read their blog posts for useful tips!

Hundreds of itineraries to help you plan a holiday

Hundreds of itineraries to help you plan a holiday

The site also interfaces with Skyscanner for flight search and Homestay for accommodation search. Now, you can’t even blame laziness for not taking that long-pending trip! 😀

We are never the same people when we travel. It changes us in beautiful ways. If you ever forget how fulfilled you felt when you just returned from a trip, you will thank yourself for storing your memories on Travelibro.

Puppets hang grinning inside a souvenir shop in Prague

Puppets hang grinning inside a souvenir shop in Prague

I read my own itinerary for Czech Republic a while back and remembered I haven’t written about it on this blog yet. Now, I know I won’t have to wrack my brains to recollect all my experiences there.

How do you record your travel memories? Let me know by commenting below!

What Warsaw Whispers – A Photoessay

It is India’s Republic Day today. I will take this opportunity to take you to the Republic of Poland, a relatively new republic in our world. The word ‘republic’ politically means a country which has chosen to be governed by its own representatives. However, on a personal level, it signifies equality – a state where no one is above another, and all are equally valued. Poland’s story is inspiring for its unwavering spirit of perseverance in the face of multiple wars and public strife.

I was in Warsaw last September, and I was moved by a lot of things I saw. I could not keep it all to myself, so I have decided to share those moments with you. Everywhere I went, the city whispered its secrets into my ear. Today, I will let you in on those secrets through the pictures I captured in this extraordinary city.

View from the Royal Castle in Warsaw

View from the Royal Castle in Warsaw

Some Gates Open into Warsaw’s Past

Warszawa (as the Polish call Warsaw) has built its entire Old Town from the ground up. From inside the Royal Castle, the Castle Square looks like a  page out of a fairy tale. The Baroque architecture is a reminder of its 16th century history. Behind the beauty lies its devastating past – the invasion by the Swedish army in 1655, and later, destruction by the Nazi Germans during World War II. Yet this UNESCO World Heritage Site was reconstructed in the 1970’s, silencing its plunderers.

These roads are made for speed

These roads are made for speed

The Road to Prosperity

Warsaw is an Alpha global city, and the 32nd most livable city in the world (as of 2012)! Zloty, the Polish currency, happened to be one of the few currencies in Europe to retain their worth when the recent economic turmoil plagued most of the continent, especially those in the Eurozone. This central European country’s progress is evident in its express roads that make driving an experience of sheer pleasure and speed.

Modern trams run noiselessly through the night

Modern trams run noiselessly through the night

Tram Cars to Sports Cars

Poland is one foreign country in which I have tried all the modes of transport! 🙂 Most of that was unplanned, but it reinforced my faith in the Polish infrastructure and mass rapid transit system. I spent very few days in this city, and managed to take the tram, the bus, the train, the metro and also a taxi to get from one spot to another (not to forget the plane I took to reenter this city from Prague). I had initially planned to take on Warszawa solely on foot. But the city is HUGE!!! Even a consistent half marathoner like me could not wing it just by brisk walking. I did not want to miss any corner of the city, so I had to swallow my pride and buy tickets to one mode of transport or another. But I’m glad I did that, for Poland charmed me with its speed and environment friendliness. Given the number of cars and other vehicles that throng the busy, wide streets of Warsaw, its air and noise pollution levels are rather low (almost negligible).

How can there not be a horse-drawn carriage in the Old Town!

How can there not be a horse-drawn carriage in the Old Town!

The “New” Old Town

Compared to its contemporaries, Warsaw perhaps has one of the youngest Old Towns in Europe. Not because it lacks history, but because everything that you see here is an exact replica of what once stood before its repeated demolition across centuries. With every step you take towards the centre of the Old Town, you come to terms with what the residents must have been through during those disturbing times. You are allured by the spotlessly clean cobbled streets and the groomed horses that draw tastefully upholstered carriages. At the same time, you weep inside at the horror of the Holocaust.

No dearth of walking spaces in Warschawa

No dearth of walking spaces in Warszawa

Pedestrians’ Right of Way

If you think Warsaw only has broad roads, think again! The city’s sidewalks are arguably just as wide as the main roads. If you went absolutely nowhere in the city and chose only to walk along its extensive maze of roads, you would still fall in love with Warszawa! The picture above is not that of a park but of a walking lane alongside an important street full of foreign embassies. The main streets are separated from the paved walkways by patches of green grass with deciduous trees shielding from the pedestrians the view of traffic. These promenades are great for rollerblading and skateboarding. For the cyclists, there’s a separate lane. 🙂 There is no dearth of wooden benches to rest those tired feet or if you just decide to sit quietly and meditate on the canopy of arresting greens and browns in the sky.

Gardens that can colour your whole world green

Gardens that can colour your whole world green

Streets are Green; Gardens, Greener!

On my first evening in Warsaw, I decided to walk to the Łazienki Park – the largest park in the heart of the capital. The park is 76 acres of paradise! <3 I was in Poland just before autumn could set in, and I was lucky to see the green trees in their full splendour before they would start shedding their leaves and colouring the city in hues of yellows, oranges and browns. Although that would be another sight to die for! Those walks through the gardens did a whole lot of good to my lungs.

Łazienki Palace - a wonder on water

Łazienki Palace – a wonder on water

Palaces, Guardhouses, Towers and Temples

The Łazienki Park and Palace Complex is an indulgence in grandeur and culture. Labyrinthine tree-lined paths lead to more than a dozen gorgeous structures. There is the Palace on the Isle, a Bath House with a Latin inscription that literally translates to “This house loathes sorrow, loves peace, offers a bath, recommends a happy life and strives to host sincere men.”

Then there’s the Myślewicki Palace which has managed to survive WWII. Łazienki Lake covers a large part of the complex, and a number of bridges connect the monuments scattered all over the park. The Egyptian Temple and the Temple of Sybil were constructed at the behest of the Russian Tsars in 1822. There are still more structures which would serve as guardhouses and observatories and even theatres.

Chopin is omnipresent in Warsaw

Chopin is omnipresent in Warsaw

The City of Chopin

Throughout Warsaw, Frédéric Chopin, the famous composer and pianist, has been immortalized through statues, museums and even musical benches! An interesting aspect of the Old Town is the ubiquitous ‘Chopin bench’ – a granite bench which plays different Chopin compositions at the press of a button. These benches also act as maps and location identifiers. Your current location is marked by a brightly coloured stone on the map of Old Town etched on the surface of the bench. The walk through Old Town becomes incredibly romantic in the company of such beautiful music.

Stage of the Roman Theater on the Isle

Stage of the Roman Theater on the Isle

Multiple Cultures in a Single Park

Somewhere along the Łazienki Park, you come across a Greco-Roman style amphitheatre, complete with a circular stage bordered with white columns. This stage is still used for live performances. The park is home to more theatres, the Old Orangery and New Orangery being two of them. Most buildings in the palace complex have been converted to museums. But what strikes one the most is how these man-made edifices exist in harmony with nature. One can spot numerous birds, both in the sky and in the lake and ponds, gliding and paddling softly throughout the park. I was in a different world in the middle of palaces with quacks of ducks, honks of swans, cries of peacocks and songs of many airborne birds ringing in the air.

Inside the Uprising Museum - war on the walls

Inside the Uprising Museum – war on the walls

The Museum of War

Poland deserves to be applauded not only for rising from its own ashes as a phoenix would but also for accepting its past. The country has carefully maintained proofs of the holocaust and the wreckage caused by multiple battles. Warsaw does not bury the horror stories that would make the dead turn in their graves. Instead, it displays the pain and pillage of its past. Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego (The Warsaw Rising Museum) is an experiential museum where you can touch and feel everything you see. You can pick up the phone-receiver to listen to actual conversations in the voices of former political leaders. You can walk into the War Room to hear gun shots and feel what it is to stand in the middle of a battleground. You can touch replicas of bullets and guns that were use to kill millions of innocents. You can also watch short films inside a theatre.

The tall buildings of Warsaw gleam at night

The tall buildings of Warsaw gleam at night

Modern Warszawa at Night

The city that once wept now knows how to celebrate. The skyline of Warsaw is impressive with umpteen skyscrapers that glitter when the sun goes down. Amidst office buildings and hotels, you will find the Palace of Culture and Science – the tallest building here. Nighttime is also perfect to go pub-hopping or shopping at its numerous designer stores. I smiled from ear to ear when I found elegant skirts to fill my bag with.

Bottles of kvass and jars of honey beg to be picked off the shelves

Bottles of kvass and jars of honey beg to be picked off the shelves

Don’t Forget to Drink! 😉

One does not just leave Warsaw without having some beer! Or for that matter kvass – the local drink made of fermented rye. I had my best craft beer at Dzik Malina, a nice place with walls decorated with bottles of kvass in different flavours and also flavoured honey. To go with your drink, order a plate of the national dish – pierogi (pronounced pee-row-zhee) stuffed with sauerkraut, mushrooms or anything else you like. You will be surprised to know that bagels originated in Poland, so don’t forget to eat some of that while you are in the country.

Ending the day with a party with my Polish hosts

Ending the day with a party with my Polish hosts

Learn to Say ‘Dzięki’

You remain an outsider in any new place until to make the effort of learning their language, or at least a few words. You will be so moved by the graciousness of the Poles that you will want to thank them again and again. On my trip, I discovered how warm and loving these people are. At my hostel (Warsaw Downtown Hostel – the best one in all of Warszawa <3 ), my hosts picked up some Hindi phrases because they wouldn’t teach me Polish without also learning my language from me! 🙂 I also had an interesting situation when a man caught me off guard and proposed to me in front of the giant bronze Chopin Statue in the middle of a park.

Warszawa, I want to say ‘thank you’ for making those days so memorable for me. Dzięki (pronounced jenky) from the core of my heart!

The Romance of Riga

I want to… but should I?… looks like I can’t… wait, maybe I can! 🙂

I fought a dozen thoughts before I caught one by its wings while I was two days from flying to Europe. It was never supposed to be a part of my plan. It was last minute. Then again, the best memories you make are never by design. I booked my tickets to Riga on a whim. And that is how I learned I should do such things more often – doing things on a whim, that is.

Riga's cityscape breaks the blue monotone of the river and the sky

Riga’s cityscape breaks the blue monotone of the river and the sky

Love at First Sight

When I first looked at Riga, I had to take off my sunglasses to see it with my naked eyes. Dazzling under the afternoon sun, the river Daugava glowed like sapphire. The endless waters seemed to separate the new town from the old, which were joined by impressive bridges. I saw the famous railway bridge made of iron – quite hard to miss since there’s always a train crossing it with its accompanying sounds. It was my first time in Latvia, and I could not tell the old town from the new one (at least from where I stood). So, I decided to toss a coin and cross the Stone Bridge (which is for cars and pedestrians).

The Latvian National Library

The National Library of Latvia

And that is how I ran into Latvijas Nacionālā bibliotēka, the silver building with an interesting architecture. After walking about on this side of the town for a few minutes and hardly finding any humans on the streets (the population here must really be low! 😛 ), I finally decided to open up Google Maps for help. But thanks to Murphy’s Law, it wouldn’t work! So, I did what I best do when I am lost – found me a place to eat. 🙂

At Picas Meistars

At Picas Meistars

In the tranquilizing ambiance of the quaint diner, I decided to stop being my own compass and texted my only friend in Riga. From our short chat, I knew I was on the wrong side of the bridge (that is, if there can ever be a “wrong” side). I ordered something with šampinjoni (mushrooms, if you really want to know) after some difficulty interpreting the Latvian menu. You will be delighted to know that English is rarely used in this country. That means, you have a great chance of picking up some Latvian. 🙂 (On the contrary, if you don’t like to open up to other cultures and languages, you will be in a tight spot! 😀 ) After crossing over to the Old Town, I managed to pose for a picture with the notable library in the background.

Blue and white - I did get my colours right! ;-)

Blue and white – I did get my colours right! 😉

Old Town

I entered Vecrīga (the Old Town of Riga) to the melody of a Latvian folk song. Strumming a blue acoustic guitar, stood a man by a lamppost at the centre of the old town. His partner, dressed in a long yellow frock, swayed and sang a fast paced country rhyme – or daina – as called in Latvian. Oh, how beautiful it felt to gaze at the towering steeple of St. Peter’s Church (first built in the 13th century) – with the perfect music to set the mood!

I could see that Riga was all out to impress me – first, leading me astray and building up the suspense; then, finally taking me on a musical date in the heart of Old Town. I had but 24 hours in Latvia, and my surprises had only just begun! 🙂

Fresh music in the Old Town - a poetic welcome!

Fresh music in the Old Town – a poetic welcome!

In Love and War…

I was awed by the impeccably maintained buildings which looked as though they had just been constructed. I soon discovered that most of these structures were first erected in the 13th and the 14th centuries. They saw the biggest of wars – The Great War (Polish-Lithuanian-Teutonic War) and the Second World War – and suffered destruction at the hands of the Germans and the Soviets.

It is almost ironical that the Germans in 1941 should bomb the House of the Blackheads – a church initially built for a guild of unmarried German merchants in Riga – Brotherhood of the Blackheads. Even its remnants could not survive for long as by 1948, the Soviets razed everything to the ground.

Dine under a patio umbrella in front of the House of the Blackheads

Dine under a patio umbrella in front of the House of the Blackheads

Riga is Born Again

Despite the wars, Latvia picked up its pieces and restored its heritage buildings. The Historic Centre of Riga is now a World Heritage Site, and tourism has gathered steam in the recent years after Latvia became independent again in 1991.

Strolling by the souvenir shops, one can’t help but notice cute figurines made of ceramic gracing the window displays. From sheep to barristers to village-huts, the mementos one can take back home are diverse. The red and white Latvian national flag is also visible everywhere.

Adorable little things that almost beg you to pick them up

Adorable little things that almost beg you to pick them up

Sauntering down the cobblestone streets of the Old Town, I counted rows and rows of houses that looked like they had come out of a children’s story book – red brick roofs, attics which looked like small houses themselves, windowpanes which appeared to have been made of ice-cream sticks, striped awnings, and even tall chimneys! So, these were the houses I had always been drawing in primary school! 😀

Gingerbread Man houses for real?

Gingerbread Man houses for real?

Meeting My Latvian Friend

I had wanted to see Riga for more reasons than one. 4 years ago, I was not even aware of a country called Latvia! I first heard of it when I was in interning in Lleida (see Lleida – A Reminiscence and Flashback to 2011: How I Started a New Life in Catalonia) and had a Latvian flatmate. This year, when I was planning my big Lithuanian run (see Running in Lithuania – My First Half Marathon Abroad), I couldn’t imagine not visiting my friend, Alise, who lived in the country right above Lithuania.

Riga did pop up once in a Bollywood movie (Agent Vinod), and I watched it at the theatre just to have a look at Riga. But that movie did no justice to the lovely capital city that Riga really is.

Groupfie in lowlight!

Groupfie in lowlight!

It was an emotional moment for both of us to meet after such a long time. Neither of us had really believed our paths would cross again in due course of time. We ate our dinners with a shot of Latvian balsam (a really strong spirit) and some pale ale from Bauskas alus, a brewery in the southern town of Bauskas. Then, my friend gave me the most beautiful parting gift by taking us on a walking tour of the city at night.

Dimly lit alleyways - perfect for romantic walks in the night

Dimly lit alleyways – perfect for romantic walks in the night

Riga at Night

Riga gets a makeover as the sun sets. From its colourful, cheerful self in the daylight, it transforms into a seductive, mysterious character. Depending on which part of the old town you are in, you will either find yourself amidst rows of nightclubs that play booming music and have a lot of partygoers celebrating loudly on the streets, or you will be able to escape into a quiet corner with not a soul in sight.

My love affair with Riga reached its crescendo when I found myself in this deserted cafe tucked inside the patio of an old building whose paint had chipped off to reveal the blood red bricks beneath.

The most romantic cafe in Old Town

The most romantic cafe in Old Town

I sat there looking up at the cloudless sky for a while before I decided to head back to my room.

Saying Goodbye

I woke up next morning excited for a new day of unplanned adventure, but I was sad to have to leave Riga. I stood by my window for a long time, taking in that unforgettable picture of the Old Town until I could remember it with my eyes closed. I left Riga at dawn, and our story would have to end there, like most romances that always have to end. They just cannot be perfect otherwise. That final image of the historic centre swathed in grey, before the sun fills it up with colour, will stay with me forever.

The silhouette of Riga as I last saw it

The silhouette of Riga as I last saw it

Have you ever been to a place and fallen instantly in love with it? Or did your love grow over time? Share your travel-love-story with me!

Flashback to 2011: How I Started a New Life in Catalonia

Sometime last year, I told you about my journey to Lleida (read: Lleida – A Reminiscence). What I did not tell you was what happened behind the scenes. To the casual onlooker it might have appeared that I was taking a lazy holiday in the country famous for its street parties and endless beaches. But “getting there” was a challenge for me. After several rounds of selection, I had grabbed a wonderful internship opportunity at a prominent IT firm in Spain. But taking leaves from my engineering college proved to be quite a trial! After many sleepless nights, I was finally all set to take my first solo step out of India. I was not just going to do an internship, I was going to #StartANewLife!

Estació de Lleida Pirineus

Estació de Lleida Pirineus

After a journey of over twenty hours that saw me changing flights and trains, taking the metro, and finally getting a car-ride, I reached my apartment. This was going to be my first long stay outside of the home I grew up in. I had never lived with other people before. I also did not know much Spanish or any Catalan. I knew that English would not take me very far in Lleida, where only a minority would understand the language. There were many thoughts that swirled in my head and intimidated me. But I was here for a reason. I knew I had to take a bold step and bring in some much needed change in my life. “Change” was the only thing that would make me grow. And I did grow on that trip… in more ways than I had imagined!

Barcelona

Barcelona

I learned to read coding errors in Spanish. I learned to greet my colleagues in Catalan. I scanned through the daily news in a language I could never comprehend before. I asked for directions on the streets using some broken Catalan and excessive gesticulation. 😛 And by the end of that month, I actually wrote an entire article in Spanish (of course, with a lot of help from Google Translate)! 🙂

Camp Nou

Camp Nou

Language was not my only learning. I cooked my own meals for the first time in my life. I did grocery shopping on my own. I learned to read maps effectively and developed some much needed road sense after two decades of relying on my parents for everything. But the best thing I learned was to TRAVEL. The travel-bug had bit me hard! The more places I wandered in, the more I wanted to wander. The more exotic dishes I tasted, the more grew my hunger.

Lleida

How I got “framed” in Lleida 😉

Before Catalonia happened to me, I knew travel as a list of things to be ticked off my list. We would go to the popular tourist attractions and come back with a lot of souvenirs. But it is here that I learned to travel for my soul. I wanted to linger at places and capture their “feel”. Photographs and videos can show you the places and play the sounds for you. But only your memory can recreate the feeling within.  I left Lleida after my internship, but I had just started a new life.

Have you ever embraced change in your life? Were you scared in the beginning? How did it make you feel in the end? I would love to hear your stories in the comments below.